The Book of Questions
Edmond Jabès, born in 1912 in Cairo and now a citizen of France, is a writer known for bringing into his unusual books his own contradictory sense of identity as a Jew and as émigré writer within the twentieth century French literary tradition. Like the French Symbolists and their literary offspring, much of his concern as a writer is to make the very mysteries of writing his subject or his central problematic focus. Coupled with this sensibility is his keen awareness of the exiled condition of Jews, a people who, in their exile, are destined to be “people of the book.” As a Jew, Jabès is condemned to dwell “within the book,” but as the literary heir to Stéphane Mallarmé, he cannot regard even the book as home. The homeless condition of the poet is similar to the homeless condition of the Jew, or as Jacques Derrida has written in an influential essay on Jabès, “the Poet and the Jew are not born here but elsewhere.” The writer cannot ever be found in his book. This is the central contradiction and dilemma behind the urgent tone of Jabès’ own writing.
There is little in the foregoing account to suggest that Jabès would be of interest to anyone outside France except those with an interest in international Judaica. With the appearance in translation of Derrida’s L’Écriture et la différence (1967; Writing and Difference, 1978), however, containing the essay “Edmond Jabès, and the Question of the Book,” English-speaking readers began to be familiar with the name of Edmond Jabès as one whose texts served to raise questions similar or complementary to those introduced by Derrida. These include, most notably, explorations of the difference between writing and voice, the critical opposition with which Derrida is preoccupied. Derrida, who has been one of Jabès’ foremost champions in France, insists on the prior status of writing; in thus consciously flaunting the historical priority of speech, Derrida challenges the claims on behalf of voice or presence (the presence of God in the book of nature, the voice or controlling presence of an author in his text) which he sees as central to the metaphysical tradition of Western man.
Jabès tends in his later texts to regard written language as a “silent scream,” which is also the scream of the Jew, “the scream of the book before the book.” This might tempt one to say that The Book of Questions: Yaël, Elya, Aely (published in France in 1967, 1969, and 1972 as Le Livre des questions: Yaël, Elya, Aely) is about the Holocaust, especially because one gathers that these characters (Yaël, and her stillborn child Elya) are somehow related to earlier names in The Book of Questions such as Sarah and Yukel. In The Book of Yukel (volume 2) and The Return to the Book (volume 3), it becomes apparent that these figures have perished in the Holocaust. In such self-deconstructing texts as these of Jabès, however, the very “aboutness” of literature is called into question. The world outside the text is canceled out, and writing creates its own universe in which the marks on the page are silent screams rather than means of communication about the pain beyond or prior to the text. Questions about the book thus become inquiries into the nature of this uncertain universe, for which the writer himself is still only an imperfect cartographer.
This approach leads to attempts to theorize and problemize the realm of writing, or of écriture in the theory of Derrida or Roland Barthes. Here one is working in a recognizable French tradition of critical inquiry, whose antecedents include Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. What is writing? According to what rules does it operate? What is the relationship between the author and the text? Such theorizing concerning the possibilities and modes of existence of texts have also, however, been central projects for the Gnostic and Cabalistic traditions of the Jews, as explained at length in recent writings of Harold Bloom. Here one confronts another source informing the texts of Jabès, who brings the power of these mystical approaches to the written word into the well-known modern French world of textual interpretation, exemplified by Derridean deconstruction and by Barthes’s eroticizing of the text as a source of pleasure for the reader, but taking as its point of departure the celebrated observation by Mallarmé that, whatever world may be said to exist outside texts, Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre. (Everything in the world exists in order to end up in a book.) Compare Derrida’s gloss on the Mallarméan pronouncement: “Life negates itself in literature only so that it may survive better. So that it may be better.”
Nevertheless, Jabès’ consciousness, as he...
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